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Recent PhD graduate succumbs to cancer, leaves legacy of academic achievement and community service

Lester R. Collins, Jr.
Lester R. Collins, Jr.

Lester R. Collins, Jr., an ordained minister, teacher and researcher who earned a doctorate last year from the UTA School of Social Work, died last month after a battle with cancer. He was 46.

Dr. Collins taught “Group Dynamics and Social Work Practice” last spring in the School of Social Work and he was scheduled to teach courses this summer as an adjunct professor.

His wife, Anita Collins, posted news online June 19 of the professor’s death. He had died five days earlier.

“For those who may not have heard, he passed away,” Anita Collins posted on Dr. Collins’ personal Facebook page. She provided details of Dr. Collins’ memorial service which was held June 23 at First Seventh Day Adventist Church in Huntsville, Ala.

Dr. Collins, who lived in Huntsville, had accepted a tenure-track position as an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work, Psychology and Counseling at Alabama A&M University. He began his work there in the fall of 2018.

On Monday, Alabama A&M officials said they were profoundly saddened to learn of Dr. Collins’ passing.

“While he was only with us for a short while, he made a very meaningful imprint upon the lives of the many students, faculty, staff and administrators with whom he came in contact,” said Tonya Perry, chairperson of the Department of Social Work, Psychology and Counseling in the College of Education, Humanities & Behavioral Sciences at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville.

 “Dr. Collin’s strong sense of faith, gentle spirit and quiet grace will never be forgotten,” she said. “He will be missed.”

His friends and colleagues in the UTA School of Social Work remembered him as a passionate scholar determined to research and improve academic achievement rates among African-American male students.

“Dr. Collins was a disciplined, reliable person with a zeal to help young people succeed academically,” School of Social Work Professor Vijayan K. Pillai said. “He wore that passion on his sleeves, lived it daily, academically and in conversations.”

Dr. Collins began teaching Social Work classes at UTA in 2013 as an adjunct professor and doctoral student.

He taught more than 20 courses at UTA including “Human Behavior in the Social Environment,” “Poverty, Inequality & Social Policy,” “Personal Relationships” and “Human Behavior and Diverse Populations.”

Prior to earning his doctorate at UTA, Dr. Collins researched gaps in academic performances among African American students and their peers.

From that research, he wrote a doctoral dissertation titled “The Achievement Gap among Black Students: A comparison of the impact of influencers’ Expectations on the Academic Success of Boys and Girls.”

Dr. Pillai served as chair of Dr. Collins’ dissertation committee.

“As we were looking for dissertation topics, it was very clear that Dr. Collins had come to me with a passion to dedicate himself toward the academic well-being of his students, especially African American students,” Dr. Pillai wrote in a tribute to Dr. Collins that was to be read during a memorial held in Alabama celebrating Dr. Collins’ life.

Dr. Pillai called his former student a “dear friend.”

As news of his death spread, nearly 150 friends, professional peers, high school classmates and others took to social media to mourn his passing.

Many online posters described Dr. Collins as a loving father and caring colleague.

“I cannot think of a more thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent and generous soul than Lester,” wrote one poster, Tasha Baizerman, of Boston, Mass. She described herself as a high school friend.

Dr. Collins earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Counseling Psychology from Oakwood University. He later earned two master’s degrees, a Master’s of Divinity from Seventh Day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan and a Master of Social Work degree from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.

Dr. Collins had research interests in mental health, substance abuse, Social Work and spirituality and diversity, oppression and social justice.

UTA School of Social Work Dean Scott Ryan said “Lester was a remarkable person with a mission to improve the academic success rate of young African American and disadvantaged students.”

An ordained minister, Dr. Collins previously worked as a senior investigator in the Minnesota Department of Health. There, he implemented a plan to reduce illegal tobacco sales to minors.

When he came to Texas, he began working in 2014 to address homelessness as a case manager at MHMR of Tarrant County and later as a performance analyst at Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance.

Thea Walker, who works with DallasCityTemple Livewell Ministries, a Dallas nonprofit that raises awareness of the benefits of healthy living, recalled Dr. Collins’ desire to see their efforts expanded to reach underserved communities.

 “The DCT Livewell staff gratefully acknowledges his life of blessing and contribution to the mental health of the African-American underserved in Dallas County,” she posted on the professor’s Facebook page, adding that Dr. Collins had helped the agency by referring a grant opportunity.

By the time Dr. Collins had earned his doctorate from UTA in 2018, he and his former professor had formed a lifelong friendship.

“It was my privilege to hood him at the graduation ceremony last year and it still remains one of my fondest memories in my entire academic life,” Dr. Pillai wrote in his tribute to Dr. Collins. “It meant so much to me.”

“Unfortunately he was taken away too soon,” Dr. Pillai said.

Dr. Collins leaves behind his wife, Anita, and a son and daughter.

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